Appositely, my daughter decided to round out the summer holidays by watching Titanic the other night. Obviously, she did this by herself, as her parents had already lost several hours of their lives seeing it when it first came out and as even the meagre charm of watching (oh so young) Leo drop through the icy waters wasn’t going to make up for the late night.
However, its apposite-ness came from an earlier moment in the summer, when we were coming back from a trip on our holiday in Croatia.
While enjoying another sunset, my eye was caught by this:
As you’ll easily observe, it’s the instruction for lowering the lifeboat. This one:
My distraction came not because I was in any immediate danger of needing to use the facility, but because it passingly struck me that if the need did arise, I hadn’t the faintest idea how to turn those instructions into the necessary action.
Let’s look again at those instructions.
There are at least six technical terms that I couldn’t confidently tell you what they mean.
There are processes that kind of make sense, but the proliferation of cables and of stages might well see me drop a big lifeboat into the sea from a height in a manner that might be very detrimental to anyone ‘lucky’ enough to be inside at the time.
Also, not pictured are at least two other escape/rescue systems, also with specific and not-that-helpful instructions, but there’s nothing to tell me what’s the optimal way for me to off-ship in an emergency.
So the sunset wasn’t that gripping?
The point of this isn’t some attempt to show you some holiday snaps, but to get us thinking about how we communicate key information. For many of us, now is the time of year we are making handbooks/syllabi and when we start with the grousing about why students never read them.
That’s like this.
Those documents are intended as baseline repositories of key information, to be referred to through the course/module and to be a way of avoiding multiple repetition of the same information.
Likewise, the usage instructions for the lifeboat are there should a member of crew not be around to lower and load the boat for you.
But in both cases, the information needs to be not only useful but useable.
The tannoy might well be saying to check out the safety protocols when we boarded, but you’ll be unsurprised that I was the only person reading that poster. Likewise, your students might not have sat down to work through the syllabus when you told them to in the first class.
Should a problem arise, in either case, then you might imagine more engagement would ensue.
Just like sailors, we use a lot of technical language and our institutions have a lot of weirdly-named processes and organisations. Just like sailors, we can get more caught up in our own world than we realise. Just like sailors, we swear a lot.
So when we’re producing student-facing materials, we need to remember that what makes sense to us might not make sense to them.
That means double-checking they have got the information they need in a form they can understand without you lowering the metaphorical winch (bowser?): should disaster strike, they have enough on their plate without having to also work out what they need to do.
Any way, that was (part of) my holiday. I hope you had a good one too.